February 11, 2013
The repentance of Lent gives birth to the new life of Easter. Yet, repentance cannot occur without a sense of one's personal sin and guilt.
Sin and guilt have bad reputations. It is as though a psychologically healthy person should rise above guilt. Too often, modern society sees guilt as a neurosis produced by religion. In fact, as Pope John Paul II wrote in his statement Reconciliation and Penance, while in the past we tended to see sin everywhere, now we often do not see it at all.
Conscience, however, does not ignore one's guilt. One may suppress that guilt, but suppression comes at a high cost – the price of one's humanity. In an unrepentant state, one has no hope of happiness.
Feodor Dostoevsky's novel Crime and Punishment tells the story of a young student, Raskolnikov, who brutally murders two women to, in effect, rise above his humanity. Raskolnikov's "punishment" is unrelenting guilt. He champions his "strength," but his whole being rebels against this strength. It demands that he confess his sin, and he does so, at first in indirect ways and then directly and unequivocally.
Raskolnikov is on a path to madness, not because the Church inflicted him with neurotic guilt, but because he is guilty and has not repented.
"What have you done, what have you done to yourself?" asks the prostitute Sonya, who leads Raskolnikov to his liberation. Her insight is that while sin offends against God and against humanity, it is ultimately a self-mutilation. The only way to restore the self to wholeness is through confession.
Western society has lost its sense of sin because it denies its need for God, because of the spread of false philosophies and because of the human tendency to hide one's shortcomings and project an aura of strength. We deaden our consciences to our wrongdoings.
Sometimes, people hide their sins for decades. But the effort to bury sin and kill conscience hardens the heart. With the passage of time, guilt does not disperse; rather, the heart becomes harder. One may be oblivious to one's guilt, but invariably others recognize that his or her soul is disturbed. Every person faces a fundamental choice: Restoration or despair. Restoration can only come through confessing personal responsibility for sin to a person who offers love.
The perfect confessor is the one who knows one's plight and who offers unconditional love - Jesus Christ. The Church offers the sacrament of Reconciliation, not because it refuses to let go of mediaeval practices, but because Christ has empowered her to offer the forgiveness that sinful humanity so desperately needs.
Lent is about repentance. "Lent" means spring, new life. But we cannot experience spring without melting those places where winter has settled into our souls.
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